15 Basic Words That Are Etymological Mysteries


All words had to start somewhere. Through the careful work of historical linguists and lexicographers, we can usually trace a word, if not to its ultimate origin, at least pretty far back in time. We know that the word water, for example, goes back to an old Germanic source by comparing it with words from other Germanic languages: Dutch water, German Wasser, Old Icelandic vatr. We know the word fruit came to English from French because we first have evidence of its use during the period when the French Normans ruled England.

Sometimes, after much searching and analyzing, no satisfying origin explanation can be found. This is not so surprising for slangy or risqué words—if they aren’t the type of words that would be written down, it will be hard to find early sources for them—but there are a few pretty basic, run-of-the-mill words that have defied the best efforts of etymologists. As Anatoly Liberman of the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the progress of etymology consists as much in discovering words’ true origins as in discarding wrong and dubious conjecture. One of its bitter triumphs is the ability to say ‘origin unknown.’”  

Here are 15 basic English words that have remained etymological mysteries.

1. DOG

English has the word hound, which is clearly related to other Germanic words like Hund, and the word cur, which is related to other Germanic words for growling. But the most common term is dog, which looks nothing like any other language. It seems related to similar untraceable English words pig, hog, stag, and the wig of earwig. Are they too ancient to trace? Were they originally childish nicknames or slang? Many theories have been explored, but the answer has not been settled.

2. BAD

What could more basic than bad and good? We know that good is cognate with many other languages, from Gothic to Old Saxon to Dutch, and evil is from a Germanic root, but bad is on its own. Its earliest uses referred to food that had gone bad.

3. BIG

Big is a pretty basic concept, but it was not the word of choice in the Old English period (when the word was mickle or great) and only shows up from the 14th century. Was it borrowed from a Scandinavian word for a rich, powerful man? Did it come from someone’s name? The status remains “origin unknown.”


Maiden is from a Germanic root, and damsel is from a French one, but where does girl come from? Perhaps an old Germanic word for dress or a borrowing from another word for child. We don’t know, but it used to be used for boys too. In the 1300s and 1400s, gurles or gyrles were children of either sex, and if you wanted to specifically refer to a boy child you could say “knave girl.”

5. BOY

Knave goes back to Old English from a Germanic root, but boy only shows up in the Late Middle Ages and in its earliest uses was an insulting term for slave, rogue, or wretch. Did it come from an old French word for “person in chains”? A Dutch word meaning messenger? It’s unclear, but the OED says that for words like girl, boy, lass, and lad, “possibly most of them arose as jocular transferred uses of words that had originally a different meaning.”


While the word ass can be connected to Gothic, Latin, Celtic, and Semitic languages, donkey is a mystery. Etymologically speaking, it’s a relative newcomer, first appearing in slang dictionaries in the 18th century. It might come from the adjective dun, meaning dingy brown, or the name Duncan. Apparently, it used to rhyme with monkey


The more common word in Old English was fugel, which can be traced back to an old Germanic root for flying (and which gives us the current word fowl), but somehow bird won out. Bird was originally spelled brid, which gave the idea that perhaps it was related to brood, but what we know about historical sound change rules makes that unlikely.


Surf, as a noun for the breaking waves, first appears in the 17th century. It might be a blend of an old word suff, for the inrush of the sea, with surge. Or it could be borrowed from an Indian language.


Fuss shows up in the early 1700s as a way to describe a showy, out-of-proportion commotion. It could be from an imitation of a rustling or blowing sound, another English word like force, or a word from another language. 


Blight certainly looks like an old English word from an old Germanic source, with its gh spelling, but it’s unattested until the 17th century and seems to have begun as a term among gardeners.

11. LOG

There is an Old Germanic root laeg,  related to lie, that became the word for a felled tree in Old Norse, but etymologists have ruled out this source because due to sound change rules, that would have ended up pronounced low in English. It may have been borrowed from a later stage of a Scandinavian language because of the timber trade, but it could also be from an attempt to imitate the sound of something large and heavy.


That outburst of anger called a tantrum first shows up in print in 1714. No one knows where it came from, and the usual authorities don’t seem to even have made any guesses about it. 

13. TOAD

Toad goes all the way back to Old English, but it has no known cognates in any of the related languages.


Some have proposed that the old word curse might have some connection with cross, but that connection hasn’t been established. It has no known relatives in Germanic, Latin, or Celtic languages. 

15. KICK

At first etymologists thought kick might come from Welsh cicio, but it turned out cicio came from English kick. The idea that it comes from an Old Norse word for “bend backwards, sink at the knees” is another possibility, but it hasn’t been generally accepted.

20 French Phrases You Should Be Using


According to some estimates, 30 percent of the English language—or roughly one in three English words—is derived directly from French. It’s a surprisingly high figure due in part to the Norman Conquest of 1066, which made French the language of the law, finance, government, the military, and the ruling classes in England, and effectively doubled our vocabulary overnight. But the popularity of French culture and French literature among English speakers has also given our language a whole host of other words and phrases—like mardi gras, avant garde, déjà vu, and femme fatale—that are now so naturalized in English that they can be used without a second thought.

Alongside everyday examples like these, however, English has also adopted a number of much less familiar French phrases that, despite their potential usefulness, go tragically underused. So why not add a little je ne sais quoi to your everyday conversation with these 20 little-known French expressions?

1. À la débandade

The phrase à la is well-known to English speakers for meaning “in the style of” or “according to,” and is seen in phrases like à la mode (“according to the fashion”), and à la carte (“on the menu”). À la débandade—literally “like a stampede”—was originally a military term that in English dates from the 18th century, when it was first used to refer to an informal or random course of action, or else a disorderly, scattering retreat or rout. More recently it’s come to be used figuratively in English to describe a disorderly or chaotic mess.

2. Amour fou

Used in English since the early 1900s, an amour fou is an uncontrollable and obsessive passion for someone, and in particular one that is not reciprocated. It literally means “insane love.”

3. L’appel du vide

Alongside l’esprit de l’escalier (more on that later), the French expression l’appel du vide often makes its way onto lists of foreign words and phrases that have no real English equivalent. It literally means “the call of the void,” but in practice it’s usually explained as the bizarre inclination some people have for doing something dangerous or deadly, no matter how foolish they know it is. So when you’re standing on a beach, l’appel du vide is the voice that tells you to swim away and never come back. When standing on a clifftop, l’appel du vide tells you to throw yourself off. There might not be an obvious English equivalent, but the concept of l’appel du vide is related to the psychological notion of intrusive thoughts, and the mythological song of the Siren blamed for luring sailors to their doom.

4. Après moi, le déluge

Après moi, le déluge means “after me, the flood,” and is used to refer to a person’s irresponsible or selfish lack of concern about what will happen after they have gone or moved on. Today it’s often associated with politicians and CEOs looking to secure their own interests at the expense of other people’s, but popular (and likely apocryphal) history claims the words were first used by the French king Louis XV, who repeatedly disregarded warnings of discontent among the French people in the lead up to the French Revolution. When the Revolution finally broke out in 1789 (15 years after Louis’s death), it eventually led to the execution of his grandson, King Louis XVI, in 1793.

5. Cherchez la femme

Literally meaning “look for the woman,” cherchez la femme is used in English to imply that if a man is seen acting out of character, then a woman will likely be the cause of it—find her, and the issue will be resolved. Although the origins of the phrase are a mystery, it’s often credited to the French author Alexandre Dumas, père, and his crime story Les Mohicans de Paris (1854-9). Most famously, when the story was later adapted to the stage, a character announced: “Il y a une femme dans toutes les affaires; aussitôt qu'on me fait un rapport, je dis: 'Cherchez la femme.'” (“There is a woman in all cases; as soon as a report is brought to me I say, ‘Cherchez la femme!’”)

6. Coup de foudre

Coup de foudre is the French term for a strike of lightning, and it’s been used figuratively in English since the late 1700s to mean love at first sight.

7. L’esprit de l’escalier

Known less romantically as “staircase wit” in English, l’esprit de l’escalier is the frustrating phenomenon of coming up with the perfect observation or comeback after the opportunity to use it has passed. The phrase was apparently coined by the 18th century French writer Diderot, who wrote that while visiting the French statesman Jacques Necker, a comment was made to which Diderot was unable to respond. “A sensitive man […] overcome by the argument leveled against him,” he wrote, “becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the staircase.”

8. Honi soit qui mal y pense

“Shame on him who thinks badly of it,” warns the old Norman French saying honi soit qui mal y pense, which has been used in English to discourage preemptively or unjustly talking something down since the Middle Ages. The saying has been the motto of The Order of the Garter, the oldest and most prestigious honor awarded in Great Britain, since it was introduced in 1348.

9. Mauvais quart d’heure

As well as having your 15 minutes of fame, you can also have your mauvais quart d’heure (or your “bad quarter of an hour”)—a brief but embarrassing, upsetting, or demoralizing experience.

10. Mauvaise honte

Mauvaise honte literally means “bad shame.” In English it’s often used simply to mean bashfulness or extreme shyness, but in its earliest and original sense mauvaise honte has been used since the 18th century to refer to false or affected modesty, in which someone pretends to have a low opinion of themselves or their abilities.

11. Mise en abyme

The French word mise essentially means “that which is put,” and as such appears in a number of phrases that refer to things being deliberately placed or arranged: a mise en scène is the dressing of a theatrical stage, a mise en page is the design or layout of a book or page of text, and mise en place is now widely known as the preparation and organization of all of your ingredients before you start to cook. Mise en abyme is a much less familiar expression that was originally only used in heraldry: the abyme is the center segment of a shield or a coat of arms, and in a mise en abyme this central section is decorated with a smaller image of the same shield. So because this means that this small central image must—in theory, though rarely in practice—in turn also contain a small central image of itself (which must in turn also contain the same image, and so on, and so on), the phrase mise en abyme (“put into the abyss”) is used to refer to the mind-boggling visual effect of a recurring image containing itself into infinity—like a mirror reflected in a mirror, or, more literarily, a story within a story or a play within a play.

12. Nostalgie de la boue

The phrase nostalgie de la boue was coined by the French dramatist Émile Augier in 1855, who used it to refer to a fondness for cruel, crude, depraved, or humiliating things. Its meaning has extended over time, however, so that today a nostalgie de la boue is often used more loosely to refer to a desire to live a simpler, downsized, or less indulgent life—it literally means “a yearning for the mud.”

13. Plus ça change

In 1849 an article appeared in a satirical French magazine that denounced the country’s current political situation. Written by a French journalist named Alphonse Karr, the article pessimistically concluded that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or “the more it changes, the more it is the same thing.” Karr’s words soon stuck and by the early 1900s plus ça change had even been adopted into English as a motto indicating a world-weary acceptance of the current state of affairs—although things might appear to change or improve, beneath it all they remain just as bad as before.

14. Pour encourager les autres

The ironic expression pour encourager les autres—meaning “so as to encourage the others”—actually refers to an action carried out to discourage any future unrest or rebellion. It was first used in this context by French journalists—and Voltaire—in the 18th century following the execution of an English admiral named John Byng. After a long and well-respected naval career, Byng was court-martialed by the Royal Navy in 1757 for having apparently failed to do his utmost in preventing the French from invading the British-held island of Minorca in the western Mediterranean. Although the charges brought against Byng were trumped-up (and, according to some, politically motivated)—and despite even King George II himself being petitioned to overturn Byng’s death sentence—he was executed by firing squad on board his own ship in Portsmouth Harbour on March 14, 1757. Understandably, the entire situation proved hugely controversial in England, and at the height of Britain’s Seven Years’ War against France became a major news story and source of much anti-British propaganda all across Europe.

15. Reculer pour mieux sauter

If you reculer pour mieux sauter, then you literally “draw back in order to leap better.” Derived from an old French proverb, the phrase is used figuratively in both French and English to refer to a temporary withdrawal or pause in action that allows for time to regroup or reassess a situation, and therefore make a better attempt at it in the future.

16. Revenons à nos moutons

You’d be forgiven for not quite understanding why someone might say “let us return to our sheep” mid-conversation, but revenons à nos moutons has been used figuratively in English for more than 400 years to mean “let us return to the matter at hand.” The phrase comes from a 15th century French farce, La Farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin, that became one of the most popular stage comedies of its day. It’s this popularity that no doubt helped this line—taken from a central courtroom scene in which one character, accused of stealing sheep, is advised by his lawyer to answer all of the prosecutor’s questions by baaing—to catch on in the language.

17. Foi fainéant

Fainéant is basically the French equivalent of someone who’s lazy or do-nothing, which makes a roi fainéant literally a “do-nothing king.” The term dates back at least to the 16th century in France and in English has been used since the 1700s. Originally, it referred to the Merovingian kings, who near the end of their dynasty increasingly served as figureheads with no real power. By the 19th century it extended to any ruler in a similar situation.

18. Tant bien que mal

Tant bien que mal has been used in English since the 18th century to describe anything that is only partly or moderately successful. It literally means “as well as badly.”

19. Ventre à terre

Ventre à terre literally means “belly to the ground” in French, and so, taken literally, it can be used simply to describe someone or something lying face-down (in the early 19th century it was used to refer to asking for a “pardon in a most abject position”). The modern English meaning, however, was a term from horse racing, and referred to a horse going at full gallop—so fast that its forelegs are thrown out in front, its hind legs are thrown out backwards, and its belly is directly above the ground. Doing something ventre à terre, ultimately means doing it at full speed.

20. Violon d’Ingres

Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker is also a trained operatic tenor. Condoleezza Rice is also a concert pianist. And the acclaimed 18th-19th century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres also just happened to be an exceptionally talented violinist. Because he was so skilled in two entirely different fields, Ingres inspired the French expression violon d’Ingres (literally “Ingres’s violin”), which refers to a hidden talent or pastime, far outside of what you are best known for, and in which you are just as knowledgeable or adept.

This story originally ran in 2014.

Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?


Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.